An Indefensible Defense

Dsk 3 David Rieff on Bernard-Henri Lévy's defense of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, in TNR:

Early in the summer of 1995, a colleague and I went into South Sudan to report from the side of the South Sudanese guerrilla army, the SPLA. At dinner on the day we arrived, completely out of the blue, one of our minders turned to me and said, “I am so sorry about this Gennifer Flowers.” I had expected to talk about many things in South Sudan, but the woman with whom Bill Clinton had had an affair in the 1980s was certainly not one of them. Not quite sure of how I should answer, I took refuge in sanctimonious platitudes. We take sexual exploitation of women by powerful men very seriously in the United States, I said. Hearing this, the minder only smiled. “With us,” he said, “the fault is always with the woman.”

I have not thought of this incident for years, but the reaction of so many leading French public figures—and not just his allies within the French Socialist Party—to the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn brought it all back to me. The International Monetary Fund’s managing director who, until this week, was widely believed to have a good chance of being elected president of France in next year’s elections is facing seven charges, including attempted rape and unlawful imprisonment of a maid at the New York hotel in which he was staying. From Bernard-Henri Lévy to Jean Daniel, the longtime editor of the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, to the distinguished human rights lawyer turned politician Robert Badinter, who, as Francois Mitterand’s justice minister secured the abolition of the death penalty, the French elite consensus seems to be that it is Strauss-Kahn himself and not the 32-year-old maid who is the true victim of this drama.

To be sure, Strauss-Kahn might not be guilty. But French intellectuals’ vociferous defense of him, without all the facts of the situation, goes too far. In his weekly column in Le Point, Lévy asked “how a chambermaid could have walked in alone, contrary to the habitual practice of most New York hotels of sending a ‘cleaning brigade’ of two people, into the room of one of the most closely watched figures on the planet.” For his part, Daniel wrote in an editorial for his magazine that the fate meted out to DSK, as Strauss-Kahn is generally referred to in the French press, has made him think that, “We [French] and the Americans do not belong to the same civilization,” and demanded to know—shades of my guerrilla friend in South Sudan—why “the supposed victim was treated as worthy and beyond any suspicion?”